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Teaching our kids how to lose

My kids are growing up in a world where every child gets a trophy or ribbon just for showing up. If you participate, you get an award. And it’s a topic that seems to produce strong feelings among  many parents. There are generally two camps of thought on this issue, or as I like to say, you’re either a Burns or a Focker (see Meet the Fockers if you don’t get the reference).

1. The Burns camp: We are misleading our children and doing them a disservice by celebrating mediocrity. In the real world you don’t get an award just for showing up and not everyone wins.

2. The Focker camp: We are building our children’s self-esteem, evening the playing field, and recognizing effort.

I have to admit that as a mom, I struggle between these two camps. While I do agree that in the real world not everyone wins, you don’t get an award just for showing up, and if we don’t prepare our children for that we are doing them a disservice; I also feel that my children will have 60+ years of the real world (God willing) where people and experiences will tear at their self-esteem, so why not let them have a few years to build up their confidence and believe they can succeed?

When my son’s hockey team came in third place (out of three teams) he beamed with pride as they put that bronze medal around his neck. And why shouldn’t he? He and his teammates practiced every weekend, skated their little hearts out, and worked just as hard as the kids who won first.

Yet when my daughter came home devastated because she was the first kid in her class to be eliminated in the school spelling bee, I had to remind her that not everyone could win or it wouldn’t be much of a competition, and she should be happy for her friends who won.

It’s a delicate balance. And I’m quite sure I haven’t got it figured out. But one thing I was reminded of this week was that letting our kids lose — and more importantly, teaching them how to lose graciously — is an incredibly important responsibility we have as parents.

My eldest daughter has led what I would consider a bit of a “charmed life”. She’s incredibly smart and therefore always received good grades, often without trying too hard. While she’s not a star athlete, she does pick up new skills fairly quickly. This, coupled with the fact that she goes to a very small private school, means she gets a lot of playing time on her volleyball and basketball teams. Most recently she’s been bitten by the acting/music bug and was given a solo in her school play earlier this year. The kid is used to things going her way. So when the school science fair came upon us earlier this year she desperately hoped and prayed for placing in the top three so she could advance to the Regionals. Low and behold her project won first place at the school level and she was going to get her wish to go to the Regional Science Fair.

A month later, we headed out early in the morning with a whole cheering section in tow (siblings, grandparents, the works) for the college where the Regional Science Fair was being held. My daughter was a ball of nervous energy mixed with excitement for getting to have this, as she called it, “once in a lifetime experience.” After a long day where she presented her project to seven different judges over the course of nearly two hours, we anxiously awaited for the winners to be announced. Her classmates who also attended Regionals won first in their categories, but my daughter’s name was never called. She didn’t place in the top three for her category. She would not be coming home with a medal.

She was on the other side of the gymnasium, so I couldn’t see her face when the awards were read, but I braced myself for a heart-broken little girl and a few tears. Instead, what I saw as I crossed the gym was her congratulating her classmates. There were no tears, and her head was held high.

Later, in the car, as we approached home I asked her what she thought about the whole experience and what she had learned. She said, “well I learned that you can’t win all of the time.”

“Yes, that’s true,” I said. “But what do you think about that?”

“Well, everyone deserves a chance to shine and succeed, and I already had my moment.”

That night I hugged her tight and I told her how very proud I was of her. Not just for all of her hard work on her science fair project, but for her poise and composure. I told her I was proud of her for the way she handled herself and how it showed what a strong character she had to not get what she wanted and still be gracious about it. She looked up at me beaming and said, “really?”

“Yes really. I couldn’t be more proud of you and the person you are becoming.”

Sure, I could have said things like “you’ll get ’em next time!” Or tried to find reasons why she didn’t win and start strategizing about what she can/should do differently next year to secure a medal. But then the conversation would have become all about winning. I would be teaching my daughter that success only comes in the form of a trophy or medal. When what I really want to teach my daughter — all of my children — is that hard work, strength of character, and trying new things that challenge us are the ultimate prize.

They won’t always be picked for the team, win a ribbon, or even be recognized for their hard work. And if they are doing it for the recognition, they will be disappointed. However, if they do it for the joy of the adventure, for the experience; if they focus on trying their best and being kind to those around them in the process; if they remember that approval and self-worth come from the One and not from being number one, then they will always be successful.

The last thing my daughter said to me that night?

“Mom, I can’t wait until next year’s science fair!”

Yes she lost. Perhaps it’s not what she would have chosen, but I’m so grateful that she was able to see the bigger picture and understand that losing does not equal failure. How we approach life and respond to disappointment is what truly makes a person successful.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching our kids how to lose”

  1. So proud of her & proud of you for congratulating her for getting through what could have been a difficult “learning experience”! Teaching kids to enjoy the journey, not the destination (or the win), must be difficult….but, what you said to her tonight, is exactly what she needed to hear! From one sensitive soul to another! 😉

  2. I am deeply touched and proud, not only of Hannah, but, I’m proud of you…the parent you are…the person you are! You are a wonderful person…mother…wife…and daughter! Hannah’s reaction this week is YOUR medal! There are many lessons in life…this particular one will stretch throughout life…it’s great to start teaching…and learning early! Love you! Janet

  3. To create a wholsome personality in a child they need perspective. Loosing gives one a perspective differant from always winning. It humbles us to realize we are not the center of the universe. Yahweh loves a humble heart in a person and hates the proud boaster. Trying our best is important but the motivation is more important. Are we working hard becasue we want accolades from others or are we doing our best to honner the Father with the gifts he gave us. Teaching our children the differance is one of the best gifts we can give them towards a happy life. I am very happy to see Hannah gaining maturity in this area and know that this experiance will help her deal with much larger disapointments later in life. Hurray for you and Hannah in one more step towards being the person she was created to be.

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